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Extinction Rebellion Urges Revolt Against Climate Inaction

Issue 271

Extinction Rebellion uses civil disobedience to dramatize the need for climate action. They are also thinking about the long term.

Nancy Hoch May 25

All photos by the author.

On April 18 — day five of Extinction Rebellion’s Spring 2022 Uprising — I joined a group of about 100 peace and environmental activists marching down Broadway from the IRS offices near Foley Square to the Financial District. It’s Tax Day and chants like, “Taxes for climate! Not for war!” bounce off the buildings, amplified by bullhorns and a group of drummers. But when the march reaches the place where Broadway splits around the Charging Bull sculpture, the forward movement and the sounds propelling it come to an abrupt halt.   

Making my way into the now quietly milling crowd, I get my first view of the climate activists risking arrest. Fifteen-foot wooden ­tripods lashed together with ropes block each branch of Broadway. At the apex of each, a figure wearing a mask and a bicycle helmet perches. Both “climbers” hold small flags imprinted with Extinction Rebellion’s logo — an hourglass within a circle, meant to signify that time is running out—which they wave ever so slowly. Otherwise, they’re silent and still. Below, two people are locked together in a “sleeping dragon” — PVC piping into which they’ve each inserted an arm. They will have to be sawed out before the climber can be brought down. A few other people are sitting in the roadway. One, a young man, is meditating. 

After the rowdy march it’s a shock to encounter this calm, almost otherworldly tableau. Often Extinction Rebellion (XR) will use a boat as part of their protest actions, meant to signify that, as one arrestee later tells me, “The seas are rising and so are we.”  According to Rev. Chelsea MacMillan, an organizer with XR’s New York City chapter, seeing a boat where it’s not supposed to be is also “a way to disrupt us, to stop business as usual.”  

As I gaze at the scene, the man next to me — a musician who plays viola de gamba in chamber groups — says he’s never been arrested, but seeing the action today, he almost “jumped in.” 

“There is no electoral way to address this problem; they’ve been bought by the corporations,” he tells me. “The only last chance we have is direct action.”   

A member of Extinction Rebellion sits atop a 15-foot-high tripod on Broadway near Wall Street.

That, in a nutshell, is XR’s philosophy, too. The group supports groups working on other fronts, but believes those efforts by themselves are not enough, given the urgency of the climate crisis. The goal, says XR’s website, is “to persuade governments to act justly on the Climate and Ecological Emergency.”  The tactic is non-violent direct action, also referred to as civil disobedience.

The idea is not for everyone to get arrested, but rather to get 3.5% of the population — about 400,000 people in New York City — visibly in motion, a threshold of mass dissent that the group believes will compel the government to take decisive climate action. “Obviously, it has to be sustained,” Mun Chong, XR NYC’s media coordinator, tells me. “It isn’t just about coming out for a march once a year, but something that is more akin to Black Lives Matter two years ago when people are out on the streets every single day.”  

Extinction Rebellion, now a global movement with chapters in 84 countries, burst on the scene in Britain in October 2018 with a series of spectacular actions including the shutdown of five major bridges across the Thames River. Two months later, an XR chapter formed in New York City. In the United Kingdom, where demonstrators sometimes occupy a space for days, direct action seems to be having an impact. Since April 1, for example, a Just Stop Oil campaign resulting in over 1,200 arrests and aimed at disrupting the flow of oil to London has caused, according to one poll, the number of people in the United Kingdom who say they are likely to engage in some form of climate action to jump from 8.7% to 11.3%.

Whether similar tactics can help the U.S. climate movement overcome the loss of momentum that occurred during the first two years of the pandemic remains to be seen. XR’s Spring Uprising in New York City, which included a four-day festival in Washington Square Park, numerous demonstrations in coalition with other environmental and social justice groups, and five actions involving civil disobedience, is the group’s first attempt at a major public engagement since the pandemic began.   

The relationship XR has, so far, been able to carve out with the police stems from the privilege they are accorded as a predominantly white, middle-class organization. 

As the arrests in the Financial District begin, the crowd chants, “We see you! We love you! We will get justice for you!” A few of the arrestees later tell me that hearing the chant helped them remain calm. In fact, a hallmark of XR’s arrests is their calmness. It’s a carefully orchestrated dance. Protesters remain still and, except for delaying their arrests by locking or gluing themselves to various objects, never physically resist arrest. They also refrain from verbal interactions with the police except to give necessary information. In turn, the police, knowing what to expect from an XR action, also tend to remain calm.  

I watch as members of the NYPD Strategic Response Group, an anti-terror group notorious for its brutality during Black Lives Matter protests, carefully cut one woman’s arm out of a sleeping dragon. When the climber on one of the tripods is brought down precipitously, numerous police reach out to guide him to a safe landing.  

Most, though not all, of the XR arrestees I meet during Spring Uprising are white, and all of them are quick to say that the relationship XR has, so far, been able to carve out with the police stems from the privilege they are accorded as a predominantly white, middle-class organization. 

After the arrests, Eric Arnum, who heads up XR NYC’s jail support operation, sets up “base camp” — a warm place with bathrooms where people can hang out for hours — at the Essex Market, a food hall on the Lower East Side about five blocks from the police station where the arrestees have been taken. Notified of the location, a fresh team of jail support volunteers arrives, replacing those who had assisted at the arrest site. Eric, 60, takes the first shift as “spotter,” placing a camp chair on the sidewalk within view of the precinct’s door. Several “runners” wait with him; their role is to bring the releasees back to Essex Market where the rest of us are waiting. “Getting arrested, it’s emotional,” Eric tells me. “No matter how bulletproof they are, when they get out, they really do need somebody to guide them back not only down Broome Street to their belongings, but back into civil society. I believe the way we treat them once they walk out that precinct door is going to determine whether or not they are willing to do it again.”

Arrestees and jail support members linger for hours around the Essex Market table. Everyone has an arrest story to tell. Lily, a Brooklyn College student who had been locked in a sleeping dragon earlier in the day, cut her activist teeth on civil disobedience 10 years ago at Occupy Wall Street when she was just 17. Fergus, part of the jail support team, was arrested for the first time in 1973 at an anti-war demonstration. As a vet in Vietnam, he watched Agent Orange kill trees. Now he fights to save forests in Western Massachusetts near his home. Many around the table have gone out to Minnesota to protest Line 3, a pipeline expansion that would carry nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day across indigenous lands. Others have been involved in NYC Black Lives Matter protests. At least one of the arrestees, a young woman of color, is celebrating her first arrest. Another arrestee had her first arrest at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in the 1970s.  

As they talk, young and old, I’m struck by the intergenerational character of the group and the rich exchange of ideas and experience it makes for. Less prominent are people in their 40s and 50s, many of whom, I’m told, dropped out of the group during the pandemic. 

Seven XR arrestees celebrate their release from jail at a nearby diner.

Ahead of the Times

The first sign that XR’s daring plan to blockade the New York Times’ printing facility in College Point, Queens has succeeded is an email I receive early on Earth Day announcing my paper “will be delivered tomorrow” due to a “transportation problem.” 

When I arrive at the base camp — a deli near the 109th Precinct in Flushing — most people are sitting or standing around on the sidewalk, keeping an eye on the precinct door across the street. Among the jail support team are two 17-year-old students from LaGuardia High School who will spend the day running errands. Mainly, though, they are all ears, listening and absorbing.  Both are politically active at school, but because the pandemic severed their connection to the older students, they say they have had to figure a lot out on their own.  

As arrestees are released, details of the action emerge. Around midnight 32 people willing to risk arrest and additional support members arrived at the facility en masse. They had with them a boat, the bed of a long trailer, six tripods and numerous cement and steel reinforced boxes and barrels, some weighing as much as 500 pounds. Within 10 minutes, around the time when the first squad car shows up to investigate, everything and everyone is locked into place. 

The police set to work on the side-entrance blockade first since that is where delivery trucks depart from the facility. It takes two or three hours for the police to assemble their forces and another three to saw through the barrels and bring the tripods down. Police cover the demonstrators with blankets and spray them with water to keep sparks from catching fire. Even so, people report feeling heat and smelling smoke. Someone notices that the blade on one of the saws was changed five times. The 15 XR members taken from this entrance are arrested around dawn.

At the front entrance, another 17 people are locked down, four in tripods and the rest in and under the boat. A few hours into the blockade, an employee, frustrated at being unable to go home, drives rapidly toward the blockade. Several members of XR’s de-escalation team rush the car, one of them hurling herself onto the hood. The car is stopped and no one is injured, but it leaves people shaken. The driver is arrested. 

The Times takes money from fossil fuel companies to run their ads, which organizers say amount to greenwashing.

Once delivery trucks begin to flow from the side entrance, demonstrators and police at the front entrance negotiate a deal: The 17 agree to unlock themselves, the police issue summonses but don’t arrest anyone and the demonstrators get to keep their equipment.   

At 80, Dr. James Merewether, a physicist and former professor at CUNY, is the oldest of the arrestees. He recalls how growing up, “the Korean War was on the front page of the New York Times. Every day there was something about they took this hill or they took this village. … Climate change is extremely more serious than a war, but it’s not on the front page of the Times every day and it should be.”

This is XR’s key complaint about the Times’ coverage of climate change. The other is that the Times takes money from fossil fuel companies to run their ads, which organizers say amount to greenwashing, on the Times’ online platforms. After XR’s action makes news here and abroad, the Times releases a statement extolling its climate coverage but avoiding any mention of its fossil fuel ads.  

As the day wears on, it becomes clear that people are struggling with some intense feelings. 

A woman named Dancing Leaf, 54, who lives in New Paltz, New York, tears up when she thinks about going home, where the level of climate activism has been low since the pandemic. “We’re in a dire situation. I’m always stressed by that,” she says.  “The only place not to be stressed is in the fight. … It’s great to be with people who care and are at least trying.” 

James, who has been listening intently, agrees: “Yes. What am I going to be doing today? If I can be doing something that is promoting the welfare of the planet, I’d rather be doing that than anything else.” 

Ward Ogden, 62, arrested at the side entrance, remembers hearing some truckers expressing support for the action, but the thought that many were inconvenienced weighs on him. “These are working people…it’s sincerely painful,” he says, even though “what we’re trying to do is avoid a bigger calamity.”  

Chelsea, 34, was locked under the boat when the employee’s car came barreling towards the barricade.  “It really rattled me. He could have crushed us.” Once she got home, she spent the afternoon crying. “I was struck by the gravity of what we are doing and also really moved by how committed everyone is and how brave,” she tells me.

A few days after the Times blockade, XR’s Regenerative Culture Working Group facilitates a “process circle” to help people deal with the difficult feelings the action has engendered. This meeting is in concert with XR’s generally mindful approach to both sustaining its members and growing its numbers. Regenerative culture, according to Chelsea, who helped head the working group for several years, is “resisting or cultivating something that is different than our go-go-go capitalistic growth at any cost mindset. … It’s the understanding that a movement is only as healthy as its relationships and as its own members, so we need to engage in self care and communal care as well as planetary care.” 

The group works on “meeting culture,” making sure there are always personal check-ins, has a conflict resilience team to help manage tensions as they arise and helps people build the skills that will help them work collaboratively. There are regular “embodied antiracism practice” trainings and “climate grief circles” listed on XR’s website and open to anyone. 

These practices, Chelsea explains, are in place not just to foster personal change but for political reasons — specifically to keep the fear engendered by the existential crisis of climate change from causing more political harm:  “Our instinct is going to be to try and control this literally uncontrollable crisis, to control the people around us. So that’s when we start seeing each other as a means to an end as opposed to these people I am building a new world with.”  

When I think about the future and the way the climate crisis will unfold, I worry most about how people and governments will react, how the knee-jerk reaction to hoard resources, build walls and blame others will plunge us into a horror from which it will be impossible to recover. We already live in a climate-changed world with millions of climate refugees fleeing resource wars, natural disasters and other calamities. Perhaps, if nothing else, XR’s experiments in regenerative culture can serve as a model for how to build resilient communities that will hold us together, and, at the same time, help us prepare for the unprecedented journey ahead.

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